Whether the wisest should rule has always been a vexed question, largely because the wisest are least likely to seek (or be granted) the power and prominence that accompany the highest position. But even being educated—simply knowing more or seeing with greater depth—can lead to friction in a democratic society. The great 19th-century convert, Orestes Brownson, saw it all 150 years ago.

Imagine this scenario: a student who has been making D’s comes to his teacher, a woman with years of experience in the classroom. She offers to help him with his latest essay, but in the course of their conversation, it becomes clear to her that he has not read the book he is supposed to be writing about and therefore cannot make cogent arguments in his paper. When she points out this omission on his part, the young man stands up, slams his hand on the wall of her office, and shouts, “I’m the consumer here, and you’re the provider! If I don’t understand it, it’s your fault!

This little scene took place at a college in the east about 25 years ago, and I know it is true because it happened to my wife. It is hard to know where to begin in analyzing that young man’s amusing assumptions. It’s the kind of problem that teachers run into at other places than Wyoming Catholic College (where our students have a spirited docility), but also one that educated people in general often encounter in dealing with those less educated. A kind of resentment or even blame arises when someone recognizes that you understand something pertinent to him but cannot get him to understand it. Athens put Socrates to death because of the accumulation over several decades of various citizens’ resentments stemming from their encounters with this man who exposed their ignorance. In fact, Socrates’ fate serves as a kind of warning for those who have found their way “outside the Cave” (to use the famous allegory from the Republic): they have to be cautious in their dealings with ordinary people who do not understand that reality has more wonderful depths and heights than what they have experienced of it.

The other day, I came by chance upon a piece dealing with precisely this topic. We inherited from my wife’s parents a complete 20-volume set of the works of the 19th century American Catholic convert Orestes Brownson. I had never really looked through them until last week, when I opened Volume 19, Popular Literature, and found his essay, “Necessity of Liberal Education,”* from 1844. The topic remains one of lively concern to a college like ours.

Brownson is at some pains to understand where the modern democratic prejudice against liberal education comes from. For example, he writes that nothing “is more common than to hear whatever transcends the common mind condemned, not only as unintelligible to the common mind, but as unintelligible in itself, and, therefore, as worthless.” Brownson invents an interlocutor to represent the opinions of the Cave, so to speak: “If your thoughts are clear and intelligible to yourself,” this questioner says, “you can utter them so as to be intelligible to the common mind.” As Brownson puts it, “it is assumed, that the common mind, without previous discipline, without any preparation, is perfectly competent to sit in judgment on all questions which, in any sense, concern the welfare of mankind.”

If the average person is competent to deal with any question, then the educated man or woman must be more or less a poseur, almost necessarily guilty of the sin of pride. Brownson points out that anyone “who should tell the people that they must take time to study his doctrines, submit to previous discipline, and receive the necessary initiations before undertaking to judge of them would be looked upon as exceedingly arrogant and aristocratic. What right has he to pretend to be wiser than the people?” If it takes effort and long preparation to understand something, that very fact goes against the common—let’s call it the consumerist—grain.

Questions of scholarship and expertise came up as several of us were driving home after last weekend’s Board meeting from Denver. We are a teaching college, and so not all the members of our faculty put a great deal of emphasis on publishing. But for those who do, we wondered, was it better for them to pursue scholarly studies into the more specialized areas of their disciplines, or to put their time into writing more popular works that would reach more people but would not have the same scholarly depth? Obviously both are valuable. My own view is that, without deep study and long thought in one’s discipline, even on things that might never make their way into a lecture or classroom discussion, professors might become repetitious and stale.

But both in that conversation and in Brownson’s essay, the salient point was that the educated have an obligation of service to those who have not been given the leisure of this higher and deeper understanding. Brownson makes a crucial point when he says that we need to distinguish between two understandings of service: 1) “Serve the people by devoting to the amelioration of their condition all your genius, talents, and learning”; and 2) “Serve the people by deferring to them, taking the law from them, and never presuming to contradict them, or in any respect to run counter to their judgments, convictions, or taste.” The latter understanding stems from a kind of democratizing envy, not to say consumerism.

The whole point of an education like ours is to turn the resources of the tradition into the first and higher kind of service, which has always been respected and sought. This intellectual superiority, borne with grace, is the hallmark of the great man, and Brownson rightly argues that the people always revere “Washingtons, Jeffersons, Adamses, Hamiltons, Websters, Calhouns”—later, he would have added Lincoln, then unknown—because the people “are wiser and juster than they who profess to speak in their name. They crave the great man, and rejoice when they find one whom they may trust and reverence.” An education like ours looks to greatness of service as its aim. The more truth it uncovers, the more capable our graduates will be of true leadership in these times that need an uncommon wisdom.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (September 2018).

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*A copy of Brownson’s essay can be read here

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